Howard Sherman: Critics should learn the language of disability

Madison Ferris, Sally Field and Joe Mantello in The Glass Managerie. Photo: Julieta Cervantes
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Sam Gold’s production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie produced a wide range of critical responses when it opened last week, and that surely wasn’t unexpected. Based upon Gold’s 2015 staging for Toneelgroep Amsterdam, it is a radically deconstructed version of the play, different in look and feel than most (presumably) of those that came before it.

Where Gold’s staging likely differs from the vast majority of its predecessors is in the director’s decision to cast Madison Ferris, an actor with a mobility disability (in her case deriving from muscular dystrophy) in the role of Laura. Williams’ text certainly made clear that Laura had a mobility disability, but it has been traditionally played with a limp, or perhaps a leg brace.

Ferris uses a wheelchair, on stage and in daily life. There is no question that the physicality of Laura in this version is different than what Williams’ described, but so is much of the production. The casting of Ferris, like any other element of the production, is certainly fair game for critical consideration. But some of the language that emerged in critics’ efforts to talk about Ferris’ performance is striking.

We read that Laura, or the actor who plays her, is “physically challenged”. She has a “physical handicap”. She is “wheelchair-bound”. She “suffers” from muscular dystrophy. That these terms are largely eschewed by the disability community, which finds such terminology patronising, insulting, archaic, misinformed or some combination of all four, seems to have escaped many writers (these examples are all from different reviews, from major outlets) and their editors.

Another review, after explaining how Ferris negotiates a set of steps with some help from other actors, describes the act as “an agonising process, painful to watch, and a forceful symbol of the physical burden Amanda has to shoulder”. Still another wonders, “Why is Ferris’ disease called upon to generate a spectacle?” One critic says that the casting “blurs the boundary between character and actress”.

Performers with visible disabilities are rarely seen in the commercial world of Broadway, with notable exceptions being the Deaf West Theatre productions of Big River (2003) and Spring Awakening (2015), the latter casting Broadway’s first wheelchair-using actor. So the unfamiliarity that arts journalists now display regarding how they write, or speak, about disability is perhaps understandable, but that doesn’t excuse it.

To declare someone with a disability a burden on their parents, no matter the circumstance, is judgmental ableism. Does a disability that blurs the line between actor and role blur it in some undefined way that all other acting performances manage to escape? How can someone be “wheelchair-bound” in a production where the actor and character regularly move in and out of the chair?

While most, but not all, of the quotes above are from negative notices, they demonstrate the degree to which the writers are perhaps uninformed about or uncomfortable with disability. It reveals much more about them than about the production, displaying their lack of personal experience and perhaps even their fear of disability and people with disabilities.

In a week when British audiences have learned that Mat Fraser will play Richard III, and a call has gone out in the US theatre community seeking an actress of colour with a mobility disability for yet another Glass Menagerie, artists with disabilities and those who advocate for them (and until recently, I was employed as the latter) have reason to be encouraged. But arts journalists owe it to the artists they cover, and the audiences for whom they report, to get up to speed with language surrounding disability. They can like what they see or not, but perhaps they would do well to avoid giving (often significant) offence where, I would hope, none is intended.

This week in US theatre

Kneehigh’s The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips, adapted from Michael Mopurgo’s novel by Mopurgo and Emma Rice and directed by Rice, makes its New York debut when it opens on March 19 at Brooklyn’s St Ann’s Warehouse. It’s one of many Kneehigh shows to land at St Ann’s, including Brief Encounter, Tristan and Yseult and The Wild Bride.

The newest play from Sarah Ruhl, How to Transcend a Happy Marriage, opens on March 20 at Lincoln Center under the direction of Rebecca Taichman. It concerns two couples and the impact of “a polyamorous woman who hunts her own meat”.

Miss Saigon returns to New York after an absence of 16 years in the revival directed by Laurence Connor, opening on March 23 at the Broadway Theatre, home to the very same Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil musical from 1991 to 2001. Eva Noblezada and Jon Jon Briones reprise their roles from London, both making their Broadway debuts.